As negotiators from around the world convene in Poznan, Poland, today to begin the latest round of United Nations talks aiming at a new global warming treaty, there has been a flurry of reports about how dire the situation will be if they fail to achieve consensus.
Some 10,000 delegates from 186 countries have convened for the 12-day meeting, the latest in a series of steps toward a meeting a year from now in Copenhagen, when a successor to the Kyoto Protocol is to be agreed to.
Here's a look at some of the considerations facing the delegates:
When global warming and forests are discussed in the same breath, we tend to think of forests as carbon sinks. That's good when forests are standing because they're absorbing pollution that would otherwise go into the atmosphere and heat the Earth's surface but bad when they're being cut down because, for the same reason, deforestation is a leading cause of carbon emissions.
But a new report by the Center for International Forestry Research being released this week makes a new case: that the forests themselves, and about 1 billion people who rely on them, are imperiled by global warming. "Forests will experience an unprecedented combination of flooding, drought, wildfire, and other effects of a warming climate over at least the next 100 years," as an Environmental News Service report put it.
Meanwhile, one of the world's great forests the Amazon in Brazil is showing new signs of stress. After three years of decelerating deforestation there, a swath of forest the size of Connecticut (4,633 square miles) was lost in the 12 month-period ending in July, according to Reuters. The cause? Skyrocketing prices for commodities like soy beans, which inspired Brazilians to clear-cut for agriculture.
The talks got under way with a series of reminders about the dire warnings scientists have been doling out about the consequences of global warming, and not just warnings about weird weather and heat waves, according to Agence France-Presse. We're talking Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse-scale warnings: war, starvation, poverty and disease.
Disrupting the environment on such a vast scale will send the poor deeper into destitution, usher millions more into the ranks of the impoverished, spark mass migrations, exacerbate existing political tensions and generally lead to conditions everyone with a conscience would rather avoid (one might even say "at all costs").
These warnings come as global emissions of carbon dioxide emissions are increasing at rates that meet or exceed the worst-case scenarios envisioned by the latest report by the world's scientists, and as new evidence is emerging of "feedback loops" in natural systems that accelerate the pace of warming.
In other words, there's no lack of urgency to the discussions
Even as United Nations leaders call for action despite the worldwide economic malaise (catastrophe?), there are signs that the financial crisis is taking a toll on renewable energy projects, according to the Associated Press. That's not a surprise, given that large-scale development of all kinds requires capital, and banks have not been lending to each other or anyone else in recent weeks.
Still, the prospect of replacing 40% of the world's energy output with new, cleaner sources is a huge investment opportunity. China has already included some green infrastructure in its $586 billion stimulus package, and President-elect Obama has promised that his economic recovery plan will include some sort of investments in renewable energy. That concept of a green economic recovery is something that 29 environmental groups have urged Obama to enact as part of a broad environmental agenda.
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